When this week began, it was easy to look at the upcoming schedule and be concerned. The Hornets had the top two teams in the West coming in to the New Orleans Arena, followed by a trip to Detroit on Sunday, the second-best club in the East. So far, New Orleans has passed two huge tests with flying colors, routing San Antonio by 25 and pulling away from the Lakers to win by 10 on Friday. New Orleans improved to 44-20 and moved within a half game of the conference-leading Lakers (45-20).
Already without center Andrew Bynum, the Lakers lost Pau Gasol just 2:33 into the game due to a sprained ankle. X-rays on Gasol were pending.
Five observations from the 10-point victory:
1) More huge numbers for Chris Paul.
We’re running out of ways to describe what CP has been doing for the club, so let’s just throw out his statistical averages from the past five games: 27.8 points, 15.8 assists. By the way, he’s also shooting 55 percent from the field, so it’s not like he firing up a ton of shots to get his numbers. He has 11 turnovers in this period and 79 assists, for a greater than 7-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, meaning he’s running the team at a high level without many miscues.
“The numbers he’s putting up and the way he’s playing, there isn’t a point guard in the league who is playing better,” Byron Scott said. “What he brings to this team and means to this team is obvious.”
2) Julian Wright not looking much like a rookie any more.
The Kansas product continued to display his improvement Friday, scoring nine points on 4-for-6 shooting in 20 minutes. His confidence in his outside touch has spiked recently, to the point where he does not hesitate when he’s open beyond the arc. Early in the season, he rarely looked to fire away from beyond about 10 feet, but he casually drained a three-pointer in the fourth quarter vs. the Lakers and also bagged another jumper. The only blemish on the night was his three turnovers. He still occasionally gets a bit out of control with the ball at times, but he’s settled down and become the team’s most valuable reserve over the past week-plus.
Wright was also assigned to defend Bryant during the fourth quarter, which says it all about what the coaches think of his ability at that end of the court.
3) One of the NBA’s best defensive teams beats one of its best offensive teams.
The Lakers have been scoring 110-plus points at will since picking up Gasol, so Friday’s game was an interesting matchup since the Hornets are ranked in the top five of the league defensively. Give New Orleans an ‘A’ on that end of the floor, holding the Lakers to just 38 percent shooting.
If you take away Kobe Bryant’s 10-for-23 night and 36 points, the rest of Los Angeles went 25-for-69 from the field (36 percent). The Hornets forced the Lakers to toss up 30 three-point attempts.
“The Lakers have been one of the best halfcourt shooting teams in the league,” Scott said. “Our defensive mentality has been to attack and be aggressive. In the last two games, we’ve done an excellent job against two very good teams.”
4) More Bonzi Wells.
The 6-foot-5 swingman played more minutes than starter Morris Peterson (18 to 14) and was as active as he’s been since joining the Hornets in the trade with Houston on Feb. 21. Wells grabbed six rebounds (three on the offensive end) and scored seven points. His physical style of play was helpful against a Lakers team that was bigger than the Hornets at almost every position on the floor. Wells joined the alley oop parade as well, throwing down a dunk off a Paul pass. Tyson Chandler and Wright have made the play a staple in the attack.
5) The buzz on… Tyson Chandler.
Chris Paul is having an MVP-caliber season. David West made the All-Star team for the first time. Everyone around the league has taken notice of Peja Stojakovic’s comeback after missing 69 games a season ago. Given all of those developments, it may be easy at times to lose sight of how crucial the 7-foot-1 Chandler has been to New Orleans’ stunningly successful 2007-08.
Remember, this is a guy who averaged just 5.3 points per game only two seasons ago in Chicago. It’s hard to imagine how he could’ve had such a terrible 2005-06 season with the Bulls, after seeing what he’s done as a Hornet. Scott ascribes the California native’s improvement to his attitude and time spent working on his game.
After a 14-point, 20-rebound game Friday, Chandler has averaged 13.3 points and 14.0 boards in March. The latter represents his best rebounding month of this season.
“I’ve got one of best jobs in the world, because I’ve got a lot of guys who are easy to work with,” Scott said, referring to Chandler and the Hornets in general. “They listen, they’re respectful, and they all want to get better and win. Tyson is no different. He’s a guy that we expect to have these type of numbers. And he puts in the work. That’s the main thing.”